Americans are sentimental.
Are we uniquely so? It’s hard to say. One can’t of course measure a frame of mind. What one can measure, however, are viral caseloads, which have spiked out of control across the USA since Thanksgiving.
As of this writing, 19.7 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Of those, 341,000 have died. Here in California, 2.25 million have been infected, and the dead are now double digits away from 25,000. Santa Clara County: 67,423 infected, 674 dead. Of those last totals, 1,153 new infections were reported today, along with 21 new deaths.
The genie’s out of the bottle. This is the fate we feared. The whole thing has gone completely out of control.
Why? And why here? Why do New Zealand, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, and even China — the country from where the virus came — have it under control?
The science is simple: We are to wash our hands, wear masks, socially distance, shelter in place. The science didn’t fail us, or it would have failed other nations. Instead, and tragically, we have failed ourselves. Some blame stubbornness. Others blame stupidity. Still others blame a misguided degree of American exceptionalism.
These are all good calls. But I’d like to cast some specific blame upon sentimentality…
It is part of our culture. It’s down deep in the fabric. Long ago, I complained that our culture was “cute.” It’s in our media, our commercials, TV shows, movies, on our billboards, in our gazes, embedded deep down in our very attitudes. A grave case of “the cutes,” as cloying as it is divorced from authenticity and groundedness.
Forgive my cynicism. I can catch the cutes, too. My soul’s tickled, for example, by the sound of my children’s laughter. And I’m known to indulge in that more grand conjoined mindset, the one that stops being tickled and starts to cry.
I am sentimental.
Songs get me. Movies get me. Memories get me. The right turn of phrase could get me. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m American, too.
But the thing is, my sentimentality is under control.
Example 1: My first son was born by way of a C-section. My whole life, I’d been prepared to cut my newborn baby’s umbilical cord (a custom which I understand might no longer be as fashionable as it once was). The C-section erased this expectation. When the baby was born, I saw one of the doctors reach over and unceremoniously snip the cord — and that was that.
Example 2: My second son was born by way of a VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Cesarean). His head was caught in the birth canal for 9 long hours. His umbilical cord got wrapped around his neck. Before my wife pushed him out, the doctor looked at me and said, “You won’t be able to cut the cord.” Having pre-learned my reaction, I half-snapped at him, “I don’t care about that.”
In other words, “All I care about is that my wife and child are ok.”
Life unfolds, you learn things about yourself. I didn’t care about the umbilicals then, and I certainly don’t care now. Looking back, I sometimes seek the emotion, that sense of having been robbed of some sacred moment, but nothing comes; it is barren. I actually do not care.
Because apparently I’m not some sentimental robot.
Sentimentality has caved in America’s skull. It’s an addictive frame of mind, one so innocent and replete with promise — an illusory emotional testament to our capacity for purity and soul. In that way, it is linked to our widespread Puritanism. In other ways, it is linked to our pandemic of the cutes. Other toxic states of mind intersect: Exceptionalism, as I’ve stated, looms large. And let us not forget about nostalgia…
Nostalgia, after all, has a secure spot within Trumpism. It’s right there in the campaign slogan, the one which never stopped for a rest in between campaigns: “Make America Great Again.” We can argue all day long about what that means. Is/was it a yearning for a more racist past? A more sexist one? Or perhaps, more benignly, a more stable one, one wherein our manufacturing jobs had not yet been shipped overseas?
Doesn’t matter, actually. Plain and simple, MAGA all comes down to harkening back. Times gone by. The good ole days. Whatever that means; it makes no difference.
The emotional evocation of nostalgia is the point.
Like I said, for many, MAGA never took a break. So come the pandemic, it came to mean, for too many, “Make America maskless again.” “Make America open again.” “Make America free again.” “Make America pre-2020 again.”
There you had it: we couldn’t hang. Not enough of us could comply with science. Introduce the holidays to this equation, and you had a coast-to-coast death trip of sentimentality, lives risked and shattered for the sake of some chilly afternoon cider and pumpkin pie.
We reached in, the doctors be damned, and cut the cord.
It’s over for America. The genie can’t find the bottle. The vaccines will push the thing down someday, in time, but in the meantime the virus will roam about with sheer freedom, as free as “true” Americans on the 4th of July, liberated like potato chip and cheeseburger belches, as independent as YouTube and Facebook — nay, 4Chan and Parler. Only unlike us, the thing is clear about its own lethal nature.
And it won’t be forgiving itself as some sentimental fool.